Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) is leading the introduction of the Mental Health Excellence in Schools Act, bipartisan legislation that if passed will address the shortage of mental health providers in schools by authorizing the Department of Education to partner with higher education institutions to help cover students’ costs at relevant graduate programs.
“Throughout the pandemic, New Hampshire families and schools have voiced serious concerns about students’ mental health and the impact COVID-19 had on our kids,” Shaheen said. “Those conversations, coupled with my visit to Dover High School earlier this year, helped inspire my decision to introduce this bipartisan legislation to increase the availability of the mental health professionals that schools need to match the scope of the challenges they’re facing.”
The legislation, which has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, would help increase the number of graduate students trained to become school psychologists, counselors, and social workers. Sheehan and other supporters are adamant it would help with the youth mental health crisis that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“This is a bipartisan bill, which underscores the shared concern and common ground on this issue between Democrats and Republicans,” Shaheen said. “I’ll continue to work across the aisle to increase support for my legislation and move this bill through the Senate so we can do everything possible to support schools as they help students cope and heal.”
The senator is also a co-sponsor of the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act, which would create grants for schools to hire mental health care providers, and she’s also supported funding an annual appropriations bills for school-based mental health services, including $111 million in FY 2022.
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the national average ratio is estimated to be approximately one school psychologist per 1,211 students. Dover School District Superintendent William Harbon said, “There is a critical need for mental health personnel in today’s public schools.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected student’s physical health but also their mental health,” he said. “Students needing mental health support need additional resources that are often not available in a timely manner due to the lack of mental health providers.”
The district has 4,200 students from Dover, Nottingham, and Barrington who attend the three grades K through four elementary schools, a middle school for grades five through eight, and a high school and career technical center for grades nine through 12.
“Being able to increase the number of school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers would be a much needed and valuable asset to schools,” Harbon said. “The bill aims to provide those resources to the public schools. It would be our hope that the proposed bill would become a reality and help all schools to have the essential resources to address the mental health needs of all students.”
Lead School Psychologist Travis Bickford, MS, NCSP, said that even prior to COVID-19 there was a need to increase the mental health workforce in the schools as only 20 percent of students who need mental health services receive them.
He said that the majority of students needing services receive them at school.
“The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students. Current data indicate a national ratio of approximately one to 1,200, which is more than double the recommendation,” he said.
Bickford said school mental health professionals, such as school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers, play a significant role in ensuring school safety.
“These professionals help create positive learning environments where students can feel safe, supported, and connected to their school community, thus reducing learning barriers so that students can reach their full academic potential,” Bickford said.
Suzanne Weete facilitates the Dover Mental Health Alliance/Community Partners that has worked closely with the district and Dover community. She feels that fast tracking the credentialling of mental health professionals is necessary but added that the need to address the lack of mental health professionals earlier than that is just as important.
She said that becoming a mental health professional/social worker can be rewarding and more young people would pursue this field of study and earn master’s degrees if the profession was more financially rewarding.
“The challenge is, college is so very expensive, and social workers aren’t compensated as they should be as they enter the workforce. How can we encourage young people to get into this field, when it is so very challenging to pay off their school loans?” she asked.
Shaheen visited Dover High School in January and met with students and staff to learn about how the school is addressing surging rates of mental health challenges among teenagers during the pandemic, including through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Connect Youth Leaders in Suicide Prevention program.
Students formed a Mental Health Initiative this school year, sparked by student leaders eager to change the culture at DHS regarding mental health and suicide awareness.
Members of the DHS senior class were motivated to act after they had lost three classmates to suicide. The group of 20 students had just completed mental health first aid training and were getting ready to train more students and share how the program has helped them.
Shaheen stated in a press release following the visit: “Today’s conversations will stick with me as Congress continues to craft legislation that responds holistically to the challenges created by the pandemic. Young Granite Staters should not suffer alone in this crisis, and it’s programs like this that make a difference.”
“The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on young Granite Staters, who’ve experienced unprecedented isolation, disrupted learning and hardship during such formative years,” Shaheen continued in the statement. “Mental health and suicide prevention efforts are more important now than ever to support our students.”